To go zero-waste, this may be Chennai’s best bet

The Chennai Corporation has initiated a zero-waste plan for the city, but for any initiative to work from the ground up, the government isn’t necessarily the best placed to complete the entire cycle by itself. Can our city go circular to successfully crack the waste puzzle?

For a city as dense and expansive as Chennai, it is not surprising that the city corporation has its hands full in terms of public works, and particularly so in the area of waste management. According to the 2011 census, the population density is over 26,000 persons/sq km. The sheer number of households, not to mention offices and factories, ensures that the city generates a large amount of waste. That, however, is not an aberration even when one looks at the country as a whole.

India is slated to become the third-largest consumer market globally by 2030. According to a recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), domestic private consumption will reach $6 trillion, which would put India behind the US and China. The report states:

India will see a tremendous jump in consumer spending driven by increased incomes, a billion diverse Internet users and a very young population. The new Indian consumer will be more affluent, and more willing to spend but will have more evolved preferences and aspirations than consumers of the past.”

The report highlights that this level of projected consumption will be driven by cities and dense urban areas which are essentially the drivers of growth. A natural and expected consequence of this level of economic growth, which includes consumption is generation of waste and its effects on the environment.

India, thankfully, is a signatory to the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly’s resolution to phase out single-use plastics. In 2018, the Indian Environment Minister’s resolution stated – ‘to eliminate all single-use plastics from our beautiful country by 2022’. The country at present generates close to 26000 tonnes of plastic waste every day, with Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Chennai accounting for more than half of that according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

Chennai’s solid waste policy

According to the Solid Waste Management (SWM) department of the Chennai Corporation, 5400 MT of garbage are collected from the city on a daily basis; 68% of this is generated by households with the remaining coming from commercial and industrial sources. Chennai ranks second among the top 10 cities that generate plastic waste, with more than 420 tonnes generated per day, according to the CPCB.

In October 2017, the Corporation of Chennai launched source segregation as an initiative to manage the garbage crisis. The response wasn’t what the civic body hoped for. The reasons given range from citizen apathy to poor planning on the part of the Corporation and inadequate staff strength.  

Last year, the state government implemented the Solid Waste Management Policy from the centre with the goal of making the SWM system sustainable. This, after the Supreme Court fined states that didn’t enforce the policy. The state government then announced that a ban on all plastic products would be introduced from the beginning of this year and it has stayed in place.

The policies put forward may not have necessarily worked in terms of producing their desired effect but the real results will mainly be felt in the long run. The Ministry for Housing and Urban Affairs released rankings of cities in 2017 and 2016 and the city did not fare well. Chennai ranked 36 out of 73 cities in 2016 and 235 out of 434 the following year.

The very concept of source segregation is one which requires citizens to actively participate. as they are the starting point. The plastic ban is a policy decision that ensures that people’s habits change or at least that’s the hope. In the city, shops now carry bio degradable bags for a small fee ranging between Rs.5 to Rs. 10 in case people do not bring their own bags.

Flowers are wrapped in plastic covers at a local shop in Thiruverkadu.

Last month, in coordination with Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), the Corporation of Chennai initiated a zero-waste plan for the city called ‘Zero Waste Chennai’. The main aim is to attain complete source segregation.

So with several initiatives being proposed and implemented over a period of time, are they effective? Is there adequate coordination between agencies?

Organisations at the forefront

Activists like Shweta Narayan point out, “There is no urban planning. Communities and city groups have been advising or asking the Corporation to decentralize waste management practices.”

The system on paper is simple. It starts with creating awareness in neighborhoods and communities about source segregation, which should begin at the household level. Next comes an efficient way of collecting the waste followed by sorting and recycling.

Coimbatore is an example that is noteworthy. In the ranking mentioned earlier provided by the Centre, Coimbatore placed 6 in the 2017 rankings. The system in place is simple – three separate coloured bags for types of waste, door-to-door collection and finally pick up points. For this, credit goes to ‘No Dumping’ a registered trust which began in 2016 and now covers 4000 households.

But for any initiative to work from the ground up, the government isn’t necessarily the best placed to complete the entire cycle effectively. While technology in terms of apps developed by organisations can play a role, for a normal household, keeping things simple is the key.

This is where other organisations such as Chennai-based Paperman Foundation and Trashgaadi come into the equation. By and large these two are examples of organisations that are involved in source segregation. Paperman has an ‘uber for trash’ mobile application that connects more than 200 local trash collectors with points of waste production. Trashgaadi serves as a vehicle for recyclers across the city. They specialise in the collection and handling of dry waste and recycles them through their partners.

Possibilities for a city like Chennai

In the final analysis, sustained and systematic efforts towards the ideals of a circular economy may be the best bet for effective waste management.

A circular economy as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is one that is restorative and regenerative, while aiming to keep the products and materials at their highest value. To put it simply, all aspects of a product are designed, packaged, transported and used with an aim to significantly reduce or minimise waste; from the manufacturing process to the end user, a circular economy involves all people and mechanisms in ensuring that waste generation is eliminated. This would ensure that there is some level of reusability, whether it be materials used or otherwise in a product’s life cycle.

The MacArthur Foundation’s 2017 report on a circular economy for India has estimated that “implementing circular economic models and opportunities in India could bring benefits of Rs.40 lakh crore in 2050; equivalent to 30% of India’s current GDP. The economic benefits aside, the same report states that greenhouse emissions would reduce by 44% in 2050.”

In a circular economy, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) also play a key role. Manufacturers have a responsibility to treat disposable waste that they contribute to. The Central Pollution Control Board in 2017 was given the EPR authorization under e-waste rules. An example in practice is in Thoothukudi where the local corporation sent back plastic wrappers to companies. Following that another batch of plastic wrappers were sent back to companies through a programme called Roots (Resource Out Of Trash) which are active in schools in the city.

The inherent challenge in a large metropolitan city is getting people’s attention. For Chennai, a circular economy would require the participation of businesses, factories and households. The usage patterns for each vary significantly. Industrial waste is different from waste generated by households which are usually concentrated in dense urban areas of the city.

Coordination is key; the city corporation, NGO’s, private & public organisations and most importantly citizens. The concept of a circular economy should be made tangible to people. The ban on single-use plastics by the Chennai corporation is a solid policy that forces behavioural change. There needs to be something similar in terms of a singular focus. There aren’t any clear guidelines for manufacturers in terms of material usage and design restrictions. It would be a slippery slope for the city/state government to dictate production practices. For companies there should be clear financial benefits, perhaps tax breaks or subsidies for using renewable materials.

Over the years, the Chennai corporation appears to have followed a sort of stop-start approach, that’s schizophrenic with respect to waste reduction. If there are going to be awareness drives carried out by multiple organisations and the government simultaneously, it can turn into noise for an average citizen. As a result, the barrier to entry should be low and stress free.

As population growth will centre in and around urban areas going forward, managing waste will be key to making sure people can live in healthy and clean spaces. This also makes economic sense according to Silpa Kaza, the World Bank Urban Development Specialist and author of the World Bank Report on a ‘Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050’ who says, “The cost of addressing these impacts is many times higher than the cost of developing and operating simple, adequate waste management systems.”


  1. Joe says:

    Why not adopt the waste disposal mechanism of U.A.E / The is no waste segregation at source !! just a huge trash container at each street corner and there is effective mechanism to collect it everyday by dedicated municipal staff !! and at trash yard by latest technology these trash are segregated and treated. So is sewage treatment too….effective mechanism work there. Why not adopt that…we cannot copy the models of affluent and well educated societies until we achieve that literacy level ( I mean these cleanliness, hygiene and need to keep environs, clean and our city clean should be incorporated in school studies and through community work handled by students…only then will society change at least in next generation )

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